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We’ve only just begun…

December 19, 2015

Since last July, I’ve felt stretched between life and death; in love with a man, whom I have since married, and working daily with Iraq Body Count (IBC) within the theme of death.

Before working with IBC, my knowledge of this not-for-profit organisation was limited to their function, namely, recording casualties of war and current violence in Iraq from 2003 until the present day. What I saw was a dry database with records of violent incidents and respective number of dead, maybe with a handful of demographics facts (names being a rarity!). Unaware of their vision or their story, I somehow dehumanised an organisation that aimed to humanise the ever increasing death toll in Iraq. These were originally British citizens who disagreed with their country’s decision to take military action in Iraq, who felt responsible and yet helpless. IBC was created, by volunteers, to calculate the human cost of war, to make a statement: the figures you hear about in the media, are people with lives and loves and hopes and dreams.

The name alone is designed to provoke, and it often does, especially at Israeli security checks, as I  learned a few days ago: ‘is this organisation political?’, I was asked, ‘well’, I hesitated, ‘only in a human rights kind of way…’. My husband and I waited for several hours at the Jordanian-Israeli border crossing after that.

My past trips to Lebanon, Syria, the UAE and Yemen did not help our case. My husband’s biggest bugbear (and source of much pride) has little to do with what he has done, but rather, what he happens to be: a Palestinian.

Rather than striking fear and victimhood into our minds and hearts, such countries may also have much to offer by means of human stories of survival, daily narratives from those who have gone through extraordinary circumstances, who deserve to be heard and potentially allow us to learn something for ourselves.

This is the idea behind Iraq Digital Memorial, an initiative from IBC, namely: to humanise the numbers compiled in the IBC database and those listed in media reports, and to invite Iraqis themselves to create a memorial for their family and friends. Individual profile pages of those who have died, with photographs, music clips, description of who he or she were, and how their family and friends continue to remember them today.

‘Remember this is a 6 month job contract!’, a concerned friend and mentor warned me back in August, when he sensed my enthusiasm and longterm planning on the memorial.

IBC is twelve years old. Like an adolescence on the cusp of adulthood, they are transitioning from a basic function: a clear aim of documenting deaths with questions of accountability; to moving into a richer process of honouring the memory of those who have died, as well as finding a way of recognising those who survive (possibly thrive) and continue to live.

My post with IBC may have an end point, though Iraq Digital Memorial is a longterm initiative, especially as the intention is to design an interface based on human-to-human meetings, with Iraqis who have lost friends and family, whose different grieving processes is taken into account.

I’ve met with Iraqis who have lost family and friends, as well as those who haven’t, but whose opinion seemed relevant and important to include. The last participant I met with was one such example; a young US-born Iraqi activist, who has been documenting various grassroots civil society initiatives in and outside Iraq. Initially, discussing death seemed, to him, somewhat contradictory to his mission of highlighting inspirational stories of hope towards a better future of Iraqis. A memorial seemed an unhelpful reminder of pain most Iraqis wanted to escape. And yet, acknowledging death, being real with what is, we are potentially better able to embrace life more fully, to move truthfully from ending to beginning.

Marrying someone I did not know this time last year has left me with my fare share of beginnings, and a part of me was (and continues to be) eager to ignore endings and to look forward, not back.

Then, I believe: whatever issue (or knot) I refuse to acknowledge, I inevitably pass on to those around me, in some form or another. From odd coping mechanisms, which alienate those I live with, to cycles of violence [LINK TO SCILLA] that ensure our future is locked into our past. This works on a collective level too, if a group of people (a generation, particular community or family) choose to avoid, then the wounds are passed on (see transgenerational trauma and Epigenetics).

Speaking of his personal experience, I heard my partner say: ‘Heartbreak can be worse than death’. Yet, he chose to face his pain and work with it, and by ‘it’ I of course mean, with himself, namely this wounded part that needed attending to. I can only avoid and ignore my own experience/s by essentially, in some way, dismissing myself.

This can also relate to life perspectives: I may choose to see the end of a relationship as living proof that romantic love is doomed to fail, as I had chosen to do for years (largely without my own awareness); or we can work to heal ourselves, muddle and struggle to reconnect with the world around us, and transition towards new possibilities. This is what he chose to do.

Grieving is a unique process, without rules of right and wrong.

In relation to literal death and the people I met, who courageously shared their experiences of losing a loved one to violence, well, they dealt as best they could with the resources they had/have at hand. And the latter often was considerably more than anything available to Iraqis inside Iraq, as physical safety was a constant factor for those living in the UK and US. Therefore, as well as acknowledging individual deaths and survival experiences, Iraq Digital Memorial also aims to be a collective place of sharing and connecting. As a mother who has lost a son or daughter, I may be able to learn of other mother’s experiences, learn from her responses and perhaps share some of what I found helpful in my own process. An online support network, which digitally connects Iraqis, inside and outside Iraq, with the wider world.

All this is in theory, as the memorial currently consists of a vision, a collection of opinions from potential participants and a design waiting to be mapped out. IBC is in it for the long haul.

As for me, I continue to find much of my own life experiences- some relating to endings, some beginnings- unearthed into the present, as my partner and I travel through our respective homes. From San Francisco to London, Dubai to Beirut, Amman and Ramallah, and back again. None are Home, and all are homes with family we love.

I wish I can take him to my home in Baghdad, which my family no longer own. Even if they did, I would not risk his life. I am proud of the Iraqis I have met over the last five months or so, and look forward to their sharing some of their stories with you.

Watch this space.

Though don’t hold your breath.

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